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Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Bible's Enigmatic 'Parable of the Talents', from Matthew 25:14

Jesus left us a puzzling story, puzzling in part because of the word talent, which in ancient times was a unit of measured weight, probably 71 pounds of precious metal.

Jesus said, "The kingdom is also like what happened when a wealthy master went away and put his three servants in charge of all he owned. The master knew what each servant could do. So he handed five talents to the first servant, two talents to the second, and one to the third. Then he left the country.  As soon as the master had gone, the servant with the five used them to earn five more. The servant who had two did the same with his and earned two more. But the servant with one dug a hole and hid his master's talent in the ground.
  Some time later the master of those servants returned. He called them in and asked what they had done with the talents he gave them.  The servant who had been given five talents brought them in with the five that he had earned. He said, "Sir, you gave me five, and I have earned five more."
  "Wonderful!" his master replied. "You are a good and faithful servant. I left you in charge of only a little, but now I will put you in charge of much more. Come and share in my joy."
   Next, the servant who had been given two came in and said, "Sir, you gave me two, and I have earned two more."
   "Very good!" his master replied. "You are a fine and faithful servant. I left you in charge of only a little, but now I will put you in charge of much more."
   The servant who had been given one then came in and said, "Sir, I know that you are hard to get along with. You harvest what you don't plant and gather crops where you haven't scattered seed. I was frightened and went out and hid your money in the ground. Here is the one you gave me"
   The master of the servant told him, "You are lazy and good-for-nothing! You know that I harvest what I don't plant and gather crops where I haven't scattered seed. You could have at least put my money in the bank, so that I could have earned interest on it."
   Then the master said, "Now yours will be taken away and given to the servant with ten. Everyone who has something will be given more, and they will have more than enough. But everything will be taken from those who don't earn anything. You are worthless, and you will be thrown out into the dark where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth."

It seems cruel, doesn't it? If you can't double the talents you're given, then you're doomed to pain and death. But the faithless servant did more than fail to earn. He insulted the master and his generosity by saying, "I know that you are hard... and harvest where you do not plant..."
The master is God in this parable, and this was a gift from the Creator of the Universe. It's not acceptable to be lazy, nonchalant, or suspicious. Better it is to refuse it on the spot.

There are many things in this parable that people don't think about; or that they misunderstand.  I often wondered - when I began my search for spiritual knowledge with Bible readings -  "What about the servant who invested the money and lost it through theft or bad luck?" He isn't mentioned. The answer is that the parable refers to spiritual endeavors, not the material world of the Judean economy. God's work can't fail to prosper if we apply ourselves with mindfulness.

Another thing is the word talent. It doesn't mean the ability to dance, manage a company, play music, or produce things. A talent (Latin: talentum, from Ancient Greek τάλαντον, talanton 'scale, balance') was approximately the mass of water required to fill an amphora. The Roman talent was 71 pounds.  In gold, that would be $21,600 per pound, or $1,533,000 per talent; in today's dollars. An incredible figure. The servant with ten talents - before the master returned - would be worth $15,333,000. So the translation is a bit off in the Bibles we use traditionally. It's been changed in newer, revised versions. The correct translation should be "bags of gold" that the master left for the servants.

Also, God considers martyrs to be the ultimate expression of spiritual courage, integrity, and effectiveness. Matthew 10:39: "He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it." So this means the world's definition of success is radically different from God's.

Here's the message: We cannot fail if we do God's work diligently. We may even be murdered. If that happens we have the ultimate reward granted to the most faithful servant. A somewhat troubling message!